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Original Author(s): Christian Tang
Last updated: 26th September 2023
Revisions: 13

Original Author(s): Christian Tang
Last updated: 26th September 2023
Revisions: 13

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The B lymphocyte (B cell) is one of the most important cells of the body. These cells form part of the adaptive immune response by producing antibodies and presenting antigens to T cells. Once activated, they can mature into plasma cells or memory B lymphocytes.

This article covers B cell development and subtypes.

B Cell Development

B and T lymphocytes arise from common lymphoid progenitor cells within the bone marrow. The progenitor cells that are committed to the B cell lineage are selected at random. T-cell progenitors migrate to the thymus for maturation whereas B-cell progenitors remain in the bone marrow.

Two selection processes happen during B cell development. Positive selection ensures that only B cells with functional receptors are allowed to develop further. This occurs when the B cell receptor successfully binds its ligand, which induces survival signals.

Negative selection happens when B cells respond to self-antigens in the bone marrow and, as a result, undergo receptor editing, anergy, or apoptosis. This promotes central tolerance and minimises the risk of autoimmune reactions when they eventually mature and move to the peripheral circulation.

Once differentiated in the bone marrow, B cells migrate to lymphoid follicles in the spleen. They also migrate to areas where lymphoid activation and defense are likely to be triggered such as in the mucosal linings. This includes the Peyer’s patches of the colon, which are a type of mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT). Other ‘MALTs’ are named according to their location or organisation e.g. Bronchial (BALT), Nasal (NALT), and Organised-mucosa (O-MALT).

Types of B Lymphocytes

Plasma Cells

Once activated, B lymphocytes can differentiate into plasma cells. Plasma cells are large cells with abundant endoplasmic reticulum, which allows them to produce large quantities of antibodies against specific antigens.

They respond to signals from T cells during infection and continue to produce antibodies until the infection is controlled. Plasma cells are often found in chronic inflammation.

B cells, plasma cells, histology.

Fig 1 – Blood film showing a multinucleated plasma cell

Memory B Lymphocytes

Some B lymphocytes will differentiate into memory B cells, which are long-lived cells that remain within the body and allow a more rapid response to future infections as part of a secondary immune response.

If the host is re-exposed to the same antigen, these cells rapidly proliferate with assistance from T cells. This produces more cells capable of secreting specific antibodies to the pathogen. This often means that the pathogen can be dealt with before the infection takes hold and becomes symptomatic.

T-independent B Lymphocytes

B lymphocytes require T cells to produce antibodies. However, a small number can function without T cell help and these are found within sites such as the spleen and peritoneum.

They are particularly important for dealing with encapsulated bacteria. Encapsulated bacteria have a polysaccharide outer layer as opposed to a protein-based one, which allows them to evade T cells. T-independent B cells can recognise these layers and produce antibodies without T-cell help.

Clinical Relevance – X-linked Agammaglobulinemia (XLA)

XLA, also known as Bruton’s disease, is a rare genetic disorder that affects the body’s ability to fight infection. Patients are unable to produce mature B lymphocytes and therefore they tend to have an absence of serum immunoglobulins post-6 months (after maternal IgG has been broken down).

Like many primary immune deficiencies, patients typically present with infections that are severe, persistent, uncommon, and recurrent.  Haemophilus influenzae, Streptococcus pneumoniae, and staphylococci are common causative pathogens.

Treatment is with immunoglobulin replacement therapy and patients may also require prophylactic antibiotics. Patients with XLA should not receive live vaccines.